January 9, 2020

What is the purpose of Science?

Max Weber. German. 1864-1920

Today's Agenda

1. Max Weber: What is the value of science?

  • Key insights about science
  • Weber's answer: the value of science

Science as Vocation

What is the value of science?

Answer 1

Science can reveal (God(s), Nature, Truth) that unite what exists (what is) with what is right (what ought) and gives our lives meaning.


  • Weber says: "Nope."

Insight 1

Compared to "theology" (unscientific forms of thought), science only assumes that scientific, objective truth exists and is valid, but otherwise all knowledge or claims are open to scrutiny or challenge

In "theology": specific facts/values are taken as "revelation" or "faith" and not open to question

Answer 2:

Ok. So maybe…

Scientific knowledge and mastery over our lives can increase happiness.


  • Weber throws shade :"Who believes this? Aside from a few big children in university chairs and editorial offices."

Insight 2:

"Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question: the only question important for us: What shall we do and how shall we live?" - Tolstoi


  • Weber means: science cannot resolve questions about value

What is the best music?

How would you prove it…
with science?

What can science do?

Insight 3

Science is a form of knowledge concerned with prediction

  • It can tell us: if we/something take this action, what will happen

Answer 3:

Science is valuable in itself because it increases objective knowledge


  • Weber still says NO!

Insight 4

Science is not "value-free". We use values to decide what is worthwhile to know about.


  • "More to know than can ever be known"
  • We might question whether these values/choices are correct.

how, and why, wombats make cube-shaped faeces

measuring scrotal temperature asymmetry in naked and clothed postmen in France

measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that's on the floor

Not always silly:

Discuss with your neighbors:

  • Who decides what is worth studying?
  • Who decides what research is funded?

Do you think this matters? Why/why not?

Do we want scientists
without values?

So why do science?

Weber's Answer:

clarity: We hold values that tell us what is desirable. Science can clarify:

  1. What actions we should take to reach the desirable outcome?
  2. Are there unexpected consequences that place our values in conflict?

Weber's Answer:

In modern times, we have two choices:

  1. go back to with faith and devotion to the old religions
  2. It is our duty to apply science to clarify our values and to inform our actions.

In sum:

Using Weber's 4 insights we will:

  • Derive attributes of scientific thinking
  • Unscientific forms of thinking
  • Identify types of questions science can/cannot answer